Amtran’s reported low ranking among its bus-service-provider peers, based on a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation performance report covering a five-year period that ended in 2018, has cast a shadow over its operations and the strong image it has tried to maintain.
Exacerbating that unfortunate standing was the report-related observation that Amtran’s problems seemed to be worsening, although recent and ongoing developments indicate otherwise.
Regardless, Amtran needs to use the new report as a foundation for trying to fix what the report identifies as being unhealthy in relation to its future.
That said, what’s important to acknowledge is that the bus service isn’t fully responsible for the less-than-upbeat picture that the report paints. The transit agency remains a victim of bus service problems and challenges handed down over decades.
That’s not to say that no remedial options were available over the years, but the local service, like other similar services across the state, are victims foremost of most people’s travel preference of wanting to use their personal vehicles rather than traveling to work, shopping or other activities by way of public transit.
As long as vehicle, fuel and parking costs remain manageable for most people, public transit will continue to face ridership and logistical challenges.
There’s also a geographical reality over which Amtran has no control. Amtran has a service area smaller in size and potential ridership than what some other services can boast. Those factors hold major weight in how the local service stacks up against others that seem to be in numerous ways equal but in fact are not.
A front-page article in the Jan. 22 Mirror began with the point that “Amtran has high operating costs compared to other transit systems with similar profiles in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.”
The article says “Amtran is ‘at risk’ of operating subsidy reductions from PennDOT in four of the eight categories in the report.”
The four “at risk” findings were three more than what a 2012 performance report identified — the basis for a reasonable assumption that Amtran perhaps could have done more since then to minimize negatives associated with its operations.
The local transit agency needs to fully heed the new report’s recommendations, among them being that Amtran better monitor its operating costs, identify additional money-saving initiatives and conduct cost-benefit analyses.
In addition, the report’s recommendation that Amtran develop a strategic plan makes sense, as indicated by the fact that Amtran already is working toward that objective.
Amtran doesn’t anticipate any funding penalties — reductions — based on the report, despite PennDOT’s option to take that action.
PennDOT shouldn’t hinder the transit agency’s efforts to fix what’s wrong, which would result if funding were reduced. Blair County’s state legislative delegation should monitor the situation.
Amtran has good reasons to believe that it could fare better the next time PennDOT evaluates its operations. It has added 16 compressed natural gas buses; in 2021, seven more could be added, if state and federal grants are forthcoming.
Meanwhile, Amtran is trying to improve route-guarantee financial arrangements, such as the one covering Penn State Altoona. There also are other efforts underway aimed at tweaking other aspects of service.
The latest evaluation by PennDOT is a wake-up call, but not a damning “verdict.”